Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Cooler

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Cooler (Bantam, 1974).

I wish I could tell my readers a bit about this book without spoiling it for you all. Unfortunately, I can't, so I'm breaking the spoiler-free part of the goal in the introduction this time. Sorry about that.

I found a well-loved paperback copy at McKay in Chattanooga for a quarter. You remember those breathless 1970s Bantam paperbacks, all white, with the text on the back cover separated by the horizontal lines, and the front cover that seems like a random assemblage of found objects? I just love the design of those things. (The image above is a later reprint.) I recognized the author, George Markstein, as one of the writers and producers of the classic TV series The Prisoner and figured, rightly, he was worth the gamble of a quarter.

You remember The Village from The Prisoner, right? Well, this book asks whether that facility might have been inspired by something that the British had to consider during World War Two. What if you've got an officer or two, or more, with a head full of classified intelligence, do something stupid and prove themselves unreliable? You can't really discharge them, and you can't send them to a civilian prison, and you can't risk them turning if they're that dangerous.

The book's structure is almost as compelling as the premise. I completely missed the pretty obvious clue of the book's title - well, it's a World War Two novel; operations would often have names that don't correspond to reality, or to expected slang - and started following a Captain Loach, who is frustrated because his mission to France has just been scrubbed after a perceived intel failure. The book goes on for quite some time setting up Loach as a hero, and introducing supporting players including one whom, we assume, will be serving as the story's romantic lead once he gets to France, and a plausible villain. Then, long after I had become comfortable with the pace of a conventional pulp spy thriller, Loach does something completely unexpected. He ends up in jail after he takes a riding crop and beats the unholy hell out of an escort that his superiors had sent him.

I was left quite baffled by this turn of events. I know that it's kind of expected in these clunky 1970s he-man thrillers to read some dated misogyny, but the brutality of this guy really disqualified him as being a hero. What a neat turn of events to learn that he is not one at all. Suddenly, the hero becomes an unsympathetic supporting player in somebody else's story. That's when it turns from conventional into something quite interesting. Recommended, and for more than a quarter, too.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mister Miracle # 1-5

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Mister Miracle # 1-5 (DC, 1989).

I love the little box on the front cover of this comic. It reads "DC Comics Aren't Just For Kids!" The perception, among many funnybook readers at the time, was that other publishers were releasing more mature fare than DC, who insisted on turning out pablum for little kids. Ah, the late eighties. I guess that you kind of had to be there, and maybe kind of had to be a defensive adolescent.

Anyway, I believe that this was the second resurrection of Mister Miracle, a really fun character with an awesome costume who was created by Jack Kirby in the early seventies. This time out, the comic was written by J. M. DeMatteis, who was using the character in the lighthearted Justice League International, and drawn by Ian Gibson, one of my favorite comic artists. The premise is that Mr. Miracle, a superhero - slash - celebrity stage magician and escape artist, and his wife Barda are trying to live a normal life in a quiet New England town, but the alien menaces of their home worlds of New Genesis and Apokalips keep interfering with the peace and tranquility they were looking for. It's done with the same whimsical, never-very-heavy touch as JLI, and a similar lack of imagination. The first five issues tell one story arc, and the first three parts each end with the exact same cliffhanger. "Golly! The sudden surprise appearance of another character from Jack Kirby's original run of comics that introduced all these characters!"

I've got a lot of time for Kirby's "Fourth World" creations, and think that many of the follow-ups crafted by other writers and artists have been pretty good, if not essential. These, I really only tracked down for Gibson's artwork, and I didn't have trouble finding them for less than cover price. I like his layouts and the fun expressions and body language of his characters a lot, and he can certainly draw beautiful women, but I don't think anybody sent Gibson the memo that Barda should look at least a little bit like Lainie Kazan. When you go as far off-model as Gibson does here, you can't really celebrate the results.

The comic is inoffensive and bland, basically. It doesn't suffer quite as badly as JLI did with its forced humor and funny-because-we-insist-that-it-is tone. In fact, DeMatteis attempts a little character drama between Mr. Miracle and his estranged father that's almost touching, but Oberon's one-note grouchiness is boring, and the safe, predictable plot is not challenging. Worth a glance for Gibson's fans, but otherwise not recommended.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rumpole for the Defence

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Rumpole for the Defence (Penguin, 1982).

Somehow, I have been aware of Rumpole of the Bailey for decades without really being aware that the character was created for television, and his adventures were novelized as short stories by his creator, John Mortimer. I guess because just about all the other British TV series that made their way to PBS's Mystery! anthology were adaptations, I assumed that Rumpole was as well.

The third of the books, Rumpole for the Defence, is actually a novelization of a series of radio episodes that starred Maurice Denham as the belicose barrister Horace Rumpole. Were these half-hour stories? I've recently watched the twelve (hour-long) episodes of the first two seasons of the TV series, and those are much denser and rich with subplots and supporting characters than these flimsy little tales. These are nothing more than the coziest of cozies, simplistic and short, the outcomes never in doubt because in almost every story, there's either an honest prosecution of a genuinely guilty party, or Rumpole's defense will hinge on the one and only extra possibility given in the text. That's why I think these might have been half-hour radio episodes; there's just no room for subplots, for anything more that might prove important to the plot, and certainly no subtlety.

The usual Rumpole rules are followed: there are regular references to She Who Must Be Obeyed and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and the character's grouchy disrespect is contagious and fun, but I certainly wouldn't recommend these adaptations for anybody looking for something meaty. Stick with the television series, or possibly the short stories and novels that Mortimer penned after the TV series ended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Big Nate: From the Top

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Big Nate: From the Top (Andrews-McMeel, 2010).

Part of me likes this book a lot, but another part is really unsatisfied with it. I had quite forgotten about Lincoln Peirce's Big Nate, a newspaper strip that used to appear in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution but was dropped by that paper in the late nineties. I'm glad to see that it's still running. Sort of a slightly older Calvin (of and Hobbes) with more friends and a larger rogues' gallery of teachers, Nate is a sixth-grade menace with big plans and a loud mouth. It's quite an amusing comic, and I enjoyed rediscovering the character, most especially a bizarre week-long series where Nate shows his friends and classmates the therapeutic power of being gently bopped in the head with an empty plastic soda bottle.

From an editorial standpoint, this book's a real treat. Unlike just about any other mass-market paperback collection of comics, this purports to include a complete run of about seven months of comics, from late August 2006 into the following April, and even notes that in the opening indicia. Andrews-McMeel certainly never gave FoxTrot or any of their other reprinted strips that kind of attention to detail.

On the other hand, the book's design is a complete disaster. Apparently hoping to evoke the feel of the classic Peanuts paperbacks, this reprints a single strip per page, despite being a considerably larger (taller and wider) book. There's a lot of wasted space on each page, and simply reducing the size of the art would have allowed two daily strips per page and nearly twice the content. Perhaps the size is meant to attract young buyers who'd like to shelve it alongside the similarly-themed Diary of a Wimpy Kid series? As far as value for money goes, I simply can't back the $10.99 retail price at all. It's a quality strip, but not a quality reprint. Recommended if you can find it on sale.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Quick statement of policy here at the Bookshelf

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Fantastic Four # 1, I will be honoring the memory of Jack Kirby by pledging to never again purchase or review any comic book published by Marvel Comics until they do right by Kirby's heirs. Which is kind of a shame, as I had started rereading a pretty good 1980s book before Kirby's family lost that summary judgment thingy, and now I won't be talking about it here.

More details on this boycott by the artist Steve Bissette: http://srbissette.com/?p=12761

Flynn's In

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Flynn's In (Mysterious Press, 1984).

I don't think there's any getting around it anymore. Gregory Mcdonald's powers definitely waned as his career continued.

Flynn's In is the second novel to star Mcdonald's other recurring character, Boston Inspector Francis X. Flynn, and while the character and his family and his interactions with his short-tempered, unhappy Sergeant "Grover" Whelan are as amusing as ever, this time the plot isn't very fun at all. It's only when Flynn is distracted, by telephone, to deal with his regular players that things really spark. The supporting cast this time out really requires some work.

In this novel, Flynn is summoned out of state on a secret assignment by the police commissioner. He arrives at an exclusive, hidden resort for the rich and powerful, called simply The Rod and Hunt Club, where one of the members has apparently killed himself in a shooting accident. Flynn quickly determines that he was killed elsewhere and his body moved. The club has decided to cover up a murder, and they've got the full support of the police in this isolated community. Flynn has merely been called in so the members can mete out their own justice. It won't come as any surprise to learn that somebody's got their own ideas of justice for the club.

The problems are just huge with this one. In an unhappy echo of Fletch's Moxie, Mcdonald has populated a cast of eccentric, unpleasant idiots who mostly speak with a single voice. Beyond "the old nudist" and "the cross-dressing judge," I couldn't tell any of these jerks apart. Mcdonald also made the remarkably bad choice of making Flynn by far the most intelligent and witty member of his cast. It really just becomes tedious and aggravating to continue. As the body count grows, it's impossible to tell whether Mcdonald is parodying a plot that was boring when Christie ran it into the ground, or if he's just plain lazy. Funny in places, particularly where Flynn's children are concerned, but a drag otherwise. Not recommended.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Complete Peanuts 1979-1980

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Complete Peanuts 1979-1980 (Volume 15) (Fantagraphics, 2011).

I have to say, my enthusiasm for this series is not as high as it was two or three years ago, but the arrival of each new volume is still a wonderful thing. Fantagraphics has passed the halfway point, and their choice of celebrities to write the forewords is as weird as ever. Al Roker, of all people, introduces this one, and he doesn't seem to have anything to say about the actual content of Peanuts at the end of the 1970s.

There's still an agreeable edge to the series at this point - Peppermint Patty's resigned acceptance to a life of D-minuses is really kind of savage - but Charles Schulz was relaxed enough to enjoy a few in-jokes and celebrity shout-outs to the likes of Bill Mauldin and various tennis stars. Most of the supporting cast have drifted completely offscreen by this point, and he hasn't found much to do with any of his new characters. There's a girl named Eudora in several strips in this book, and she only seems to function as somebody who silently stands around while Snoopy's World War One Flying Ace speaks French, badly, towards her. Woodstock picks up four fellow birds - Beagle Scouts - who don't accomplish much beyond a recurring punch line about angel food cake.

Still, when Schulz was on, which was most of the time, there's still enough surreal moments and beautiful artwork to make up for the feeling of complacency among the cast. Taking a few moments to study just how Schulz would draw Lucy at her crabbiest always results in me laughing out loud, and there's a sequence where Schroeder, hoping to attend a music camp, allows himself to be "flown" by doghouse, which is revealed to be extremely funny when we learn that Schroeder's the only one who is not in on the joke. Each time that Schulz started one of his longer, weirder stories like this, readers will find themselves wondering how in the world he resolved it. He succeeded every single time. Surely not the best of the Peanuts volumes, but nevertheless happily recommended.